France and its public still on shaky ground
For now, there is calm. Four second-half goals in Minsk on Tuesday night put an end to France's record-breaking 526-minute goal drought, and the ensuing win in Belarus all but secured a place in Europe's World Cup qualifying play-offs.
It is unlikely to last. Even if an impressive 7,679,000 viewers watched the Belarus game on French national broadcaster TF1 (a 31 percent audience share), France still has a very uneasy relationship with its national team. French Football Federation (FFF) president Noel Le Graet's comment on striker Karim Benzema that "someone who's a starter at Real Madrid can't be as bad as that" after Friday's game with Georgia was out of turn, but typical of the level of exasperation that many of the general public in France have towards individual stars.
The degree of tension in recent years was perhaps best -- and most bluntly -- captured by January's cover feature in monthly magazine So Foot, entitled "Why France hates its footballers."
Most will tell you that the short answer dates back to the 2010 World Cup, and the "Bus of Shame" incident at Les Bleus' Knysna training camp. The events are well known; Nicolas Anelka being sent home for refusing to apologise for swearing at coach Raymond Domenech and his team-mates' subsequent refusal to train in support of him. It was the nadir of a troubled tournament, underpinned by inexorable rumours of dressing-room factions.
Post-tournament, Patrice Evra carried the can as captain of the unruly ship, receiving a five-game ban from the FFF. Franck Ribery was suspended for three games and Jeremy Toulalan for one. All 23 players who went to South Africa were stood down for the first game in charge of Domenech successor Laurent Blanc, a friendly in Norway.
It left its scars, though. On the eve of the first fixture for which Evra and Ribery were both available to play again, the government stuck its oar in, not for the first time. Sports minister Chantal Jouanno expressed her hope that neither player would ever be picked for France again. "You can't bring such shame on France and then hope to play again for the national team," she said at the time.
Current coach Didier Deschamps said recently that the infamously shy Toulalan, who enjoyed two seasons of sparkling form at Malaga before recently joining Monaco, was still too profoundly affected by the controversy to handle a recall, even now.
What has become abundantly clear in the post-Knysna world is that public reaction meant that the authorities, led by the FFF, have become obsessed with being seen to do the right thing, rather than necessarily taking the appropriate course of action in any given situation. The draconian punishment of Yann M'Vila, Wissam Ben Yedder, Antoine Griezmann, Chris Mavinga and Mbaye Niang after their Paris nightclub sortie between Under-21 games in October 2012 was a case in point.
M'Vila was banned from all national team involvement until the end of June 2014, while the others were suspended until December 31, 2013. Appeals in February by M'Vila and Ben Yedder saw their suspensions reduced, with the last four and three months of their respective terms converted into a suspended sentence -- bringing M'Vila back into the frame for the World Cup squad, at least theoretically. The other three declined to appeal.
As Le Monde pointed out at the time of the quintet's original ban, Eric Cantona had been given a shorter suspension -- of one year -- for calling then-manager Henri Michel a "sack of s---" back in 1988. Ribery described the bans as "too much," while Loic Remy and Louis Saha were among others to sympathise. M'Vila moved to Rubin Kazan partly to escape further public ire, and Mavinga later followed. Griezmann, who has lived in Spain since he was a teenager, has kept his head down and his mouth shut.
It's important to understand that Knysna may have been a tipping point, but it wasn't the origin of France's problems. The atmosphere in the camp had been notoriously bad for some time. William Gallas famously complained of the younger generation's lack of respect when Samir Nasri committed the cardinal sin of sitting in the absent Thierry Henry's bus seat -- and then refused to move.
Yet Gallas' complaints struck a chord with some members of the public, who felt that the younger generation had too much too soon. It tapped into France's uneasy relationship with the ultra-commercial world of modern football. There is a yearning for a more innocent time, when sport was just that, rather than business. Ostentatious flaunting of wealth is something that France is not keen on.
To move on, strong leadership is needed, but it's nowhere to be seen. France's squad is painfully short of leaders and if Deschamps knows it, his predecessor Blanc knew it too. It's why he originally tried Alou Diarra, his trusted captain from their days together at Bordeaux, as the national team skipper even though he seemed an unlikely pick for the squad.
Deschamps, and Blanc before him, have questionable records in terms of turning around crises at Marseille and Bordeaux respectively. In Belarus it was an impassioned half-time speech from Evra, of all people (who didn't even play), that provoked the second-half turnaround.
So where to look for inspiration? Italy boss Cesare Prandelli has shown that it is possible to run a hard moral line yet retain a bit of common sense and empathy. He dropped Daniele De Rossi, no less, for a friendly against the French in November after the iconic Roma midfielder was sent off for hitting Stefano Mauri in the derby with Lazio. Yet when Mario Balotelli slept in and missed a prospective meeting with Italian Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge this week, the coach let it ride. He reacted to the level of the misdemeanour, rather than to the public perception of it.
Even in an age when elite players worldwide have become polarised from their audience by huge salaries, the fracture between players and public is particularly notable in France. It will take some players and personalities of exceptional stature -- perhaps level with the high-water mark of 1998 -- to begin a significant and lasting healing.